NOTE: No update this Tuesday. I’ll be traveling for the North American solar eclipse, and won’t be anywhere with reliable internet. Look for Horizon 7 a week from today. Thanks for reading!
Karla was still very new at the concept of knowing people who weren’t Kio. For years, she had understood that the lessons she learned about dealing with him–that his silences often concealed storms of uncertainty, that his face would work to be cheerful while his heart grew heavy–could be applied to other hypothetical people. But like everything else about the surface, understanding others had thrown her for a loop.
She thought she was making a start on Jenny. The engineer concealed nothing, one reason she was so easy to like. Her uncle was more complex, but she could at least tell he was desperate for approval, full of ideas, and in love with Rose, none of which were subtle.
Calvin McConnell was so much harder. She’d met him half a dozen times and only now had she realized: whatever was behind his eyes did not reveal itself. The ale he quaffed, the father he hid from, the chivalry he affected–none of that was the core.
The core of Calvin was somewhere behind the crossbow he leveled at Karla and Jenny.
“Calvin, don’t start with this crap,” Jenny said. “We’ve got something important to do.”
“What?” asked Karla and Calvin at the same time.
“Stop the City Council,” Jenny declared with confidence. “It’s so obvious what their plan is. They’re trying to divide us, weaken us, so that when the Empire comes they can waltz in unopposed.”
“You’re lying!” Calvin shouted. “Why would they care about that?”
“I said it was obvious! It’s because…”
“…because one of them is the real traitor,” Karla finished.
Calvin was faltering already. He didn’t play the part of the goon very well. That was one thing Karla could see in his shaking hands: it wasn’t a love of violence that pushed him to do this.
“Stop it,” he breathed. “You’re trying to confuse me. You can’t talk your way out of this.”
“We can, and we’re going to,” Jenny shot back. Karla’s insides wavered with a very Kio-like uncertainty that this was a better idea than surrendering.
Calvin swung the crossbow toward Jenny, who babbled on. “Calvin, you know my uncle. You’ve known him your whole life. He never cared nearly as much about the treasure as he did about making the greatest skycraft in the world. Why would a guy like that sell out to the Torals?”
“I don’t know!” Calvin spluttered. “We’ve been jerks to him. We have. Anyone would get tired of us calling his ideas nuts all the time. But this is so much worse.”
“This is wrong! You know this feels wrong!”
Better Karla sauntered up beside her. Gonna let her upstage you?
She’s scared, Karla thought, angry at herself. But then she looked at Calvin.
She could read him like Kio. She had to.
“You love Rust Town,” she said.
“‘Course I do.” Calvin’s eyes swung to her while the crossbow stayed trained on Jenny. “Don’t want the damn Empire to burn her down.”
“So why are you doing this? Threatening kids? Who’s that gonna help?”
“Yeah!” Jenny nodded. “Did you already forget the last glow? You found me in the street and wouldn’t leave me until I’d gotten somewhere safe. You were a hero.” Not my hero, her tone seemed to say, but you could have been somebody’s.
“What am I supposed to do?” Calvin asked. “I saw that gold through the door. I was watching you all the whole time you hid it. It doesn’t matter whether Griff would have betrayed us, he did! And if he’s talked to the Navy, maybe he can turn them around!”
Hmm. He might be onto something there.
“All you saw was gold in the workshop. Anybody could have put it there. And I’m thinking right now that it’s pretty obvious it was someone from the City Council. Or all of them.”
Silence and wind. Karla exchanged a brief glance with Jenny, neither certain what to do next. The tip of Calvin’s crossbow bolt sagged toward the ground.
In the distance, a block away at the workshop, someone shouted. Something else smashed. Karla fought back a hot wave of frustration. That place had been her home for a week, even more than the cave at Rose’s. Now it was threatened by people she was supposed to have been able to trust.
Jenny stepped forward.
“Help us get them, Calvin,” she said. “Come with us. If we’re right, we can make them talk to the Navy. If we’re wrong, you can haul us back here and lock us up with Uncle Griff and Aunt Rose.”
“I wanna stop the Torals. I wanna save my home,” Calvin kept murmuring.
And for once Karla and her imagined better self spoke as one.
“That starts with putting the damn crossbow away.”
He didn’t. Not right away. Instead Calvin asked, “How is getting the City Council going to be any better than me arresting you? It’s all just killing time. ‘Til the invasion.”
For the first time, Karla noticed that Jenny was shaking, and as white as foam on the ocean. Only the dim light had allowed her to hide it.
“They want something,” Jenny said. “And the sooner we keep them from getting it, the sooner we can focus on what really matters.”
Nashido, Karla thought, and my promise to Kio.
Griffin sat against one wall of his corrugated shack, clasping his hands and trying not to heave out of frustration. Rose sat beside him. His palms twitched with the sheer futile agony of it–she wanted to help him, they both knew she couldn’t, and all the things nobody could do compounded one another.
It had all been perfectly planned. So much more perfectly than the City Council was capable of that they must have come up with it by accident. The sequence of events had been piecing itself together in his head since Adam had kicked the door down: whichever one of the bandits had done an end run to the Imperial Navy had panicked when word of Ranson’s news had reached him. He’d come up with a way to put some of his ill-gotten gold to good use, and Griffin had been the perfect target.
Adam and his boys were tearing the workshop apart, throwing his tools and food and bedclothes around without any regard to his systems. “Stop it,” he’d shouted the first few times, but some brute–or McConnell himself–would just glower at him and return to the ransacking. Now he saved his breath.
It was all so damn unfair he wanted to weep. Yet every time he nearly did, he looked sidelong at Rose, and wondered how he ever could have thought he would protect her. Sitting here whining about what is and isn’t fair.
Truth was, nothing had been fair since he’d followed his brother to Rust Town, since each year–each day–he decided to stay because he couldn’t stand being beaten by a problem.
A posse man threw Jenny’s bed over, upsetting the teakettle. Tepid water seeped into the grass floor. Griffin turned toward Rose: the one thing he could do, at least, was apologize for getting her into this.
A knock shook the walls.
The door swept open. Adam had crossed the room to meet it already, as though some magnetism had drawn him to the woman with the crossed axes that stood in the doorframe.
“How’s the town?” he asked his wife.
“Burning,” Grace answered shortly. “Eight fights, two of which reached the level of brawls, eleven robberies. Most everyone’s sheltering in the crystal square.” Her eyes flitted to Griffin and Rose hunched against the wall. “I’m here to take your prisoners.”
“Take them where?” A brief touch on Grace’s wrist, a wordless conversation.
“Out of the way. You’ll get this investigation done faster without them underfoot. Then you can help me and mine knock some order back into this place.”
“Grace,” Adam growled carefully, “we–”
“–are wasting time here. Hand ‘em over.”
Griffin’s heart pounded. At the minimum, he’d been distracted from his despair. He watched Grace intently.
Adam shut his eyes for the short moment it took for him to realize he was meant to trust his wife. “Sure, go ahead. Crystal square. I’ll meet you there.”
A member of the posse hauled Griffin up by his armpits. Rose followed without having to be coaxed.
Out in the night, some sort of commotion was making its way downhill one block to the left. Karla and Jenny, Griffin thought with a leap in his soul. Either it’s them escaping, or they’re long gone. That was hope. There was nothing those two together couldn’t do.
Grace dismissed the posse man with a jerk of her head. As the door swung shut, she hefted her axes, then flipped one around, offering it handle-first to Griffin.
The aeronauticist gawked.
“Right, you two,” Grace said, tucking a stray white hair back into the braid that fell behind her paradoxically youthful face. “We’re going to save Rust Town.”
“You know where they hang out, don’t you?” Jenny whispered.
“This is it,” Calvin hissed back, releasing a strong tang of liquor on his breath. “This is where they hang out.”
“This is the whole deck!”
“It’s as close as I’ve been.”
Half-listening as they went on, Karla scanned the hanging walkways from behind the low garden wall they were crouching against. The people in the houses around the plot had gone so hard to ground they didn’t even notice anyone hiding in their yard.
Not that they planned to be here much longer.
Karla had a sense of the place now: a long, thin strip of hanging huts, never more than two or three houses deep. No gardens, no airstrips, just hovels ready to crash into the sea at any time.
The place for those too desperate for High Dusk but not resigned enough for Low. Aiden and Finn fit the bill.
“Any weapons?” she asked Jenny and Calvin.
“One crossbow,” Jenny replied. “And whatever we find. Plus no easy escape route and no plan if they catch us.”
“We need to find the place before we can escape.”
“And if they’re at home? What do we do then?”
Karla’s mouth turned up. In the chill night wind, she could almost imagine she was back on Nashido. Not that she wanted to be–except to grab Kio and get going–but the prison had made her brave.
“What we do best,” she told Jenny. “Improvise.”
I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!
Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.